So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear,
Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost;
Evil, be thou my good.
-- Lucifer, in John Milton's Paradise Lost. Bk. IV. L. 108.
There are no shortage of games whose villains are demons from Hell, and no shortage of games whose protagonists are monsters or demons of some sort. There's an entire sub-genre of games (mostly Japanese) in which heroic half-human characters struggle to overcome their inhuman heritage even as they use their demonic powers to be heroes. There are also a few games, usually tempered with comedy, where the player takes the part of the "forces of darkness." Cryptic Comet's sophomore release, the turn-based strategy play-by-email game Solium Infernum, is nothing like any of the aforementioned games.
In "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" William Blake wrote that "The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it" (Erdman edition, page 35). In Paradise Lost, Lucifer is a Romantic (anti-)hero and a tragic figure, more human and more interesting than Adam and Eve, let alone the Tyrant of Heaven. There are volumes of scholarship on this topic, and many more on the Romantic hero (not to be confused with the Fabio-esque or pale n' sparkly heroes of popular romance fiction). Solium Infernum is a capital-R Romantic portrayal of the Inferno.
The nominal plot of the game is this: the Prince of Darkness, ol' Scratch himself, has disappeared, leaving the Abyss in turmoil, and all of the players are Lords of Hell competing to be highest of the lowest. The world of the game is much more interesting than the plot, and it is precisely the look and feel of the game, and of gameplay, that support and realize it as a distinctly Romantic and Miltonian, surprisingly "literary" work. This game is mature in a way that is usually only associated with Interactive Fiction: it invites you to stop and read its copious flavor text, and even to stop and appreciate the aesthetic design of the game interface, but only on your own time. There are no cut scenes in Solium Infernum: in fact, there is no animation whatsoever in the game. Solium Infernum never wastes your time: you can linger as long as you like over a decision or a scrap of interesting game art, but the only delay is in processing turns. It's a game whose design philosophy is paradigmatically opposed to that of Windows Vista.
Solium Infernum is one of a new crop of computer "boardgames:" games that intentionally revive the conventions of tabletop gaming in original games that would be inconvenient, or even impossible, to recreate as traditional board, card, and/or war-games. Other examples from the past few years include Cryptic Comet's previous title, Armageddon Empires, Mousechief's Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble, and Sting Entertainment and Atlus Games' Dokapon Kingdom for the Wii. Of these, only the relatively-mainstream Dokapon Kingdom is fully animated in 3d.
Cryptic Comet seems to be positioning itself as the indie, digital counterpart to Fantasy Flight Games (maker of Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror board games with lots of pieces, complex rules, and higher production values than other "geek" game companies). Cryptic Comet's games have a similar investment in art and design, at a lower price point due to the lack of a materials cost (Fantasy Flight's games mostly run in the $50-$80 range, whereas Armageddon Empires and Solium Infernum are $30 each). Cryptic Comet's rivalry with tabletop gaming was more apparent in Armageddon Empires, which is stylistically indebted to Warhammmer 40k and borrows the deckbuilding mechanic popularized by Magic the Gathering. Armageddon Empires suffered from one critical flaw: it was single-player only.
Solium Infernum offers entirely new game mechanics, and was designed for PBEM play, and it is more stylized and self-consistent in its visual design. The map of Hell is rendered in bleak, ash-grey tones, broken by the bright red of the player's pawns and the polished ebony of the other player's pawns. I say pawns, because the Legions of Hell are rendered as heavily stylized pawns or figurines on-screen, and all of a given player's pawns are of the same style (if you scroll over the pawn, a thumbnail of the unique art for that particular Legion appears at the bottom of the screen). The game's message and menu screens are presented as parchment scrolls, text in a quill pen style, some with red wax seals, and some (such as the player's Ritual Chamber) embellished with Goetic magical sigils.
The interface suggests the patient scheming that the game demands, and keeps even the frenzy of combat at bay. When Legions clash and Praetors (commanders) duel, one is informed of the outcome and has the option of viewing a detailed written report of how the combat went. This establishes a distance between the player character (one's aspiring King of Hell) and the fate of his, hers, or its minions. This balances against the often tragic stories one can chose to read in the flavor text of Legions and Praetors: stories of being cast out of Heaven, but also of betrayal and despair and slow decline in Hell.
As with Daniel Remar's platformer Iji, the game is reframed if one chooses to stop and read the optional texts in the game. The picture that emerges is not one of glorious conquest or mad violence, but of dogs picking over scraps from the master's table. And the Tyrant of Heaven is cruel: events in-game include all players being smited by God and losing some of their hard-won personal power, and of a nearly-invincible Angelic host coming to Hell to kill demons (the game names "Tartarus" as the Hell-in-Hell that vanquished demons are banished to). Occasionally, an Infernal Crusade against Heaven is mounted, but the best fate a Legion sent off to fight can meet is survival (accompanied by a nice stat boost). The war with Heaven is unwinnable, so the damned fight over scraps in Hell.
The most interesting gameplay innovation in Solium Infernum is its political system. Perhaps because they have so little else, the Lords of Hell have their pride and their own twisted sense of honor. All players start as members of the Infernal Convocation, housed in the great demon city of Pandemonium, and are bound by its rules of conduct. Players make political overtures looking for an excuse to declare Vendettas against other players, and even Vendettas are limited engagements with rules. Victory in the game doesn't go to the "last man standing:" instead, the game ticks down at an unpredictable pace toward the election of a new Infernal king by the Infernal Convocation. Politics, combat, and control of the map of Hell all allow players to gain Prestige, and it is the fiend with the most Prestige who is elected Lord of All Hell, with the runner-up becoming the new boss's lieutenant. There is a "brute force" path to victory: it is difficult but not impossible to conquer Pandemonium and hold the Infernal Convocation hostage, but even the attempt will unite all of the other players against the "Excommunicated" usurper.
The game is not without its flaws: the different parts of the game interface aren't fully integrated, so sometimes you have to close the window you're looking at and open another to do something implied but not allowed from the first screen. Also, while one has great flexibility in designing one's Lord of Hell, many of the available abilities are useless early in the game, while Charisma, which controls Tribute (resource collection) is invaluable. The collection of Tribute is very random, and Souls (one of four resources) are much more useful than the other three, so a few lucky tribute rolls early in the game could have a huge impact. Hopefully these issues will be addressed in future updates, as Solium Infernum has everything else it needs to develop a sustainable and devoted multiplayer community, especially as its low system demands and integrated diplomacy system (which doesn't require that players share a common tongue) could help it internationally. Solium Infernum continues in the best tradition of Dante, Milton, The Rolling Stones and Guy Davis, being the work of "a true Poet and of the Devils party," knowing or not.